From Canyons to Cacti: A Complete Arizona Travel Guide

woman with black backpack and a camera exploring Monument Valley – Arizona Travel Guide

Planning an Arizona road trip or a city break in the desert state? Visiting Arizona is perfect for the outdoorsy and adventurous sort, with an impressive array of otherworldly national parks. 

It can almost be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Do you head straight to the Grand Canyon or linger at the mystical vortexes in Sedona? (We’ll get into that in a minute.)

Use this guide to plan your Arizona trip from start to finish, including how to prioritize what to see in Arizona. 

How many days should I spend in Arizona?

If you only have a few days, two to three days is enough to visit Sedona, Flagstaff, or a combination of Phoenix and Scottsdale. 

A week will give you enough time for an Arizona road trip that will hit the natural highlights. That includes the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon — both Lower Antelope Canyon and the Upper Canyon are worth your time — and the red rocks of Sedona.

Horseshoe Bend (Page, AZ)

With more time, you can add more of the state’s unique landscapes, like the astounding Monument Valley of northern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park, and Lake Powell. 

What is the prettiest place in Arizona? 

Sedona always comes to mind as one of the prettiest places in Arizona. Honestly, it’s one of the most scenic places in the United States.

Nearby Oak Creek Canyon and Slide Rock State Park only add to the intrigue in the region on Arizona road trips, with enough possibility to fill weeks’ worth of adventurous activities.

10 Fun Facts About Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park – Blue Forest Trail

Arizona is quite an interesting place, which makes it rife with possibilities where fun facts are concerned. Check out 10 of my favorite Arizona fun facts to impress any locals you come across.

  1. Arizona has wine! In fact, there are over 100 different wineries doing their thing in Arizona.
  2. If you just can’t deprive yourself of those fries whenever you see those golden arches, you have Arizona to thank. The first McDonald’s drive-through opened in Sierra Vista back in 1975.
  3. The movie Oklahoma! was filmed in Arizona, so when they’re going on about those wide-open plains or whatever they’re going on about, the inspiration was Arizona.
  4. Those saguaro cacti are even more impressive when you find out that the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where they grow.
  5. The state has an official state fossil: petrified wood. Get up close and personal with samples at Petrified Forest National Park.
  6. Yes, the big national parks are awesome, especially if you’ve experienced the Grand Canyon South Rim. Arizona is also home to 18 national monuments, more than any other state. The Vermilion Cliffs and Walnut Canyon are among them, and well worth an add on any Arizona itinerary.
  7. If you’re a big fan of hummingbirds, head to Arizona. Depending on the year — sometimes Texas reports more of the rapidly buzzing birds — Arizona has more hummingbird activity than anywhere else in the United States.
  8. Arizona did something magical in 1973 when the bola tie was designated the official neckwear of the state.
  9. Most of Arizona observes Mountain Standard Time year-round, which means they don’t get all fuzzy when most of the rest of the country is dealing with daylight savings.
  10. That said, Arizona’s Navajo Nation does observe the daylight savings time change, which makes me sad for them.

Top Places to Visit in Arizona

It can be hard to narrow down the best places to visit in Arizona. Whether you’re short on time or plotting your route for an Arizona road trip, here are my favorites, in no particular order.

Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ)

This slot canyon near Page will transport you to what you’re almost certain is another planet. That’s how strange the landscapes are as you descend below the ground.

If you’re able, explore both the lower and the upper canyons. Both offer something just a little bit different from the other.

Note: Keep in mind that the canyons are only accessible on a guided tour. This is Navajo land you’ll be visiting here.

Planning a trip to Arizona with kids? There is some climbing involved with an Antelope Canyon visit, but it’s a great Arizona day trip for adventurous little ones.

Want an adventurous twist? Instead of exploring the canyon with a classic walking tour, opt for a unique and less crowded experience by renting a kayak and paddling from Lake Powell to Antelope Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park

Desert View East Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

This is one of the most impressive natural wonders you’ll encounter on this earth, even though I know someone who called this one a “giant hole in the ground.”

If you’re able, take one of the hiking paths down into the canyon to take in some of the best Grand Canyon views. Reflect on how small you feel looking up at the canyon walls rising around you. This place is spectacular, and not at all overrated. 

Grand Canyon National Park is easy enough to explore on your own, but if you’re looking for a bucket listy guided experience, guided tours are also an option.

Cycling lover? Covering 800 miles, the Arizona National Scenic Trail offers a chance to traverse the entire state from north to south, including a brief journey through the Grand Canyon.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park West – Sendero Esperanza Trail to Wasson Peak

If you’re talking about saguaro, a simple cactus can be very impressive.

Fun fact: The specimens in the park can grow up to 40 feet tall, with arms reaching out for the sun in the most amusing ways.

Numerous trails at Saguaro National Park will get you right up close and personal with the featured cacti. Outside of the 

Scottsdale

Taliesin West (Scottsdale)

The sprawling city of Phoenix is likely where most tourists are starting their Arizona adventures, but if the sprawl of the big city overwhelms you, head to Scottsdale, instead.

Take advantage of the numerous spas here and treat yourself to a day of relaxation. Stroll the city’s Old Town with its 19th-century olive trees and eat your way through a burgeoning foodie scene. Visit Taliesin West, a must for fans of architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright.

All of that makes Scottsdale the perfect stop for weekend getaways in Arizona, whether you’re traveling as a couple or with your friends.

Scottsdale is cool, and it wants you to know it.

Sedona

Soldier Pass Trail – Sedona

Sedona feels like worlds away from the rest of the state, with some of the most impressive landscapes you’ll find across the country. A Sedona trip is also popular with those seeking a spiritual experience. Apparently, there are vortexes here that radiate the Earth’s energy.

Hike among the red sandstone for your own spiritual adventure, and follow it up with dinner in this foodie paradise. Sedona is also a popular place for guided tours, including trips to see some of the best stargazing across the state. 

Best Times to Go to Arizona

The winter and spring months are generally the times of year to visit Arizona for the best chance at decent weather, especially if you’re looking to hit any of the national parks and state parks in the state.

We’ve visited during both of those seasons on our Arizona vacation and found winter preferable.

That said, when to visit Arizona does depend some on where you’re going in the state and what you’ll be doing, as those winter months do see snow in areas of the state with some elevation.

Summer (June-August)

There’s a reason why snowbirds leave Arizona in the summer months for their primary homes in the Midwest. It is SO hot in the state in the summer. If you’re fine living as the locals do, inside their air-conditioned spaces, plan to vacation Arizona in the summer.

The only perk I can think of with a visit during this time is lower rates on airfare and lodging in the state’s main cities, with the state’s tourism industry itching to get you to visit in that summer heat.

The exception to the above is Grand Canyon National Park, which sees most of its tourists in the summer months, despite the potential for severe thunderstorms at that time.

Avoid visiting the state’s slot canyons during the summer months. On top of the heat, flash floods are also a dangerous possibility.

Fall (September-November)

If you’re interested in visiting the Grand Canyon, this is a great time to go, as road closures are possible once the snows come in the region.

Cooler temperatures make the cities more appealing in the fall as well, with many popular state festivals happening during autumn.

Winter (December-February)

Winter is a peak travel time throughout Arizona, particularly if you’re hitting the spas of Phoenix or Old Town Scottsdale on your Arizona road trip itinerary.

The snowbirds are in full force, crowding outdoor patios to get some outside time they likely wouldn’t be able to wherever they came from.

Arizona does get snow in certain parts of the state, though, so keep that in mind at the top of your Arizona travel tips if you’re expecting to be able to do all of those hikes you’ve been thinking about. We hiked several trails slick with ice on our visit to Sedona in February.

Spring (March-May)

Despite a higher chance of rain across the state, spring is a beautiful time to visit Arizona thanks to the desert blooms probable during a visit then.

You’ll see the cacti of Saguaro National Park topped with blooms, for example, a magical sight, and all kinds of floral activity in places like the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

If you’re visiting early in the season, you may still experience some snow on the ground in regions of the state at higher elevations. Temperatures expectedly begin to rise by mid-May as the summer season approaches.

How to Get to Arizona

Arizona has some major transportation hubs for you to fly into if you’re traveling by plane, including Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Tucson International Airport.

Mission San Xavier del Bac – Tucson

Connections from there are available to smaller airports throughout the state, including Yuma International Airport and Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.

Deals to the major hubs, especially Phoenix, are easier to find if you’re flexible on timing. Expect higher prices in the winter months, a peak travel season for snowbirds.

Use a tool like Skyscanner if you’re able to watch flights for a bit to catch those Arizona travel deals.

Another strategy is following the major airlines that fly there for deals on cheap Arizona travel that may come up from your city. Watch Southwest and Delta, two big dogs that offer tons of flights into the state from around the country.

What to Pack to Arizona

What to pack to Arizona will depend a bit on when you’re going — if you’re hitting Vegas on the way, for example, bring all the sequins — but here are a few items that will cover the most popular Arizona trip itineraries.

  • Cowboy Boots: A cowboy hat is always a good bet if you’re headed to Arizona’s western towns. Complete the look with a hot pair of cowboy boots.
  • Cowboy Hat: If you’ve added Tombstone to your list of things to do in Arizona, a cowboy hat is even more of a no-brainer. Get in on some of that line dancing while you’re at it.
  • Flannels: It’s not hot in Arizona year-round. In those transitional months, you’ll want layers. Flannels are a versatile choice when those desert evenings hit.
  • Hiking Backpack: If you’re exploring some of the state’s parks, head out there prepared with a good hiking backpack. Get yourself a matching water bladder to stay hydrated.
  • Hiking Pants: A pair of good weather-resistant pants can be pretty clutch on winter visits to hiking destinations like Sedona where stream crossings are a big thing.  
  • Hiking Shoes: If you’re hiking, whether you’re hitting the deserts or crossing streams in Sedona, bring along a durable hiking shoe. 
  • Layered Jacket: Unless you’re traveling in the dead of summer — I’d recommend against planning day trip activities to the desert then — Arizona weather can get sneaky.
  • Rain Jacket: Summer showers are a possibility no matter where you’re visiting in Arizona. Pack something lightweight just in case.
  • Sundresses: Make that spa weekend in Phoenix or Scottsdale even fancier with a sundress or two. You’ll want breezy materials for warm-weather travel in Arizona.
  • Wool Socks: If you’re doing any hiking on your trip, pack several pairs of wool socks no matter what time of year you’re going. They’ll keep you dry and cool.

How to Get Around Arizona

Arizona is a great state for road trips.

Book a car rental before you arrive, so you know what you’re getting for your drive through the state. It’s always easiest to just pick your ride up from the airport. 

If you’re looking for additional options for long-distance travel, Amtrak does have several routes that cut through the state to get you to hubs like Flagstaff, Kingman, Tucson, and Yuma, but you’ll still likely need a car once you get there.

Greyhound is really your only long-distance bus option.

Dobbins Lookout (Phoenix)

If your travel is limited to Phoenix, you may be able to get around using the city’s network of buses and light rail system. Tucson also has more than 40 bus routes that run in and around the city.

Common Arizona Phrases

Although you should expect to be spoken to in English in Arizona, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically understand what someone’s saying to you while you’re there.

Check out these common Arizona phrases and all the best Arizona slang so you’re prepared for all of that conversing with the locals.

The Big Ditch

Arizonans are proud of their natural wonders, but they do like to poke fun at rampant tourist fascination with the Grand Canyon, or The Big Ditch.

But it’s a dry heat.

Natives don’t actually say this, but those new to Arizona do. Does dry heat really matter when temps are in the triple digits?

Carneceria

You’re more likely to get your meats from a carniceria than a butcher shop while in Arizona, in part thanks to much of the state’s proximity to the Mexican border.

Chubasco

A chubasco refers to inclement weather during monsoon season and Arizona’s torrential downpours.

Oven Mitts

OK, this isn’t slang but a warning to those visiting Arizona in the summer months. The summers get so hot some take to wearing oven mitts for protection when their hands are on the steering wheel.

Raspados

Raspados are the Arizona version of snow cones or shave ice if you’re lucky enough to be in Hawaii.

Snowbirds

These are all the folks coming to Arizona from cold climates, often the Midwest.

Swamp Box

Arizonans are all about their air conditioning. A swamp box is an evaporative cooler.

Stravenues

Stravenues are streets, roads, avenues, etc. that run along a diagonal.

The Ten

This is a reference to Interstate 10, the major east-west highway in the state.

Local Arizona Foods

Arizona may not be known for its culinary delights, but there are quite a few things you should try on your visit to get a real taste of the state.

Cheese Crisp

The cheese crisp, popular throughout Phoenix, is like a quesadilla that forgot its top and is sliced like a pizza. Anything cheesy sounds mighty fine to me.

Chimichanga

You’ll find Mexico’s influence all over Arizona cuisine. A chimichanga is a deep-fried burrito that’s served with dollops of sour cream and guacamole.

Cowboy Steak

You didn’t wear those cowboy boots just for kicks. A cowboy steak, or Arizona steak, is typically quite the hunk of meat: a 24-ounce, bone-in rib eye.

Fry Bread

Fry bread is a delicious Navajo tradition, a plate of fluffy bread topped with beans, meat, and any manner of savory ingredients.

The story behind the treat isn’t as wonderful. The Navajo people came up with the idea when they were forced to leave their lands by their colonizers. Fry bread served as sustenance.

Margaritas

It’s a little bit vague, but Arizonans love their Mexican food, and alongside all of those chimichangas, they’re likely to be sipping on margaritas.

You’ll find fancied-up preparations in the big cities. Prickly pear is a popular ingredient.

Navajo Tacos

When your fry bread is served up like a taco, you have a Navajo taco. Ground beef is a popular protein, and you should expect the fixings you’d find at your favorite taco bar.

Piki

Piki bread comes from the Hopi tribe and is unique in its color. The bread is made with blue cornmeal and is so thin that It melts in your mouth upon the first bite.

Ranch Fries

Ranch fries are crinkle-cut fries layered with several heart-stopping ingredients, and by that I mean they’re both delicious and not nutritious.

Think bacon, various cheeses, chili, and yes, Ranch dressing.

Raspados

You already know the lingo from the common phrases above. Raspados are Arizona’s snow cones.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

This street food is beloved in Tucson and quite the gut punch. The hot dogs are wrapped in bacon and topped with beans, mayonnaise, and other toppings depending on your mood.

Special Dates & Events in Arizona

If you’re planning a trip to Arizona during a specific time of year, consider whether any festivals or holidays are occurring. You may want to attend special events or avoid them, as holidays often mean business closures.

Tucson Festival of Books (March)

The annual Tucson Festival of Books is a free fair that celebrates the written word. Meet authors, listen to readings, and hang out with like-minded folks at the University of Arizona’s grassy mall.

Arizona Polish Festival (April)

The Arizona Polish Festival, held annually in Phoenix, allows all Arizonans across the state to eat their weight in pierogi and dance it off to one of the polka bands going live at any given moment. I also imagine gallons of Polish beer.

Phoenix Film Festival (August)

It’s not just about Cannes, people. The Phoenix Film Festival is a big deal on the film circuit.

Hundreds of movies are screened over 11 days at the festival, which started in 2000 to get Arizona on the map in the film industry.

Helldorado Days (October)

This annual event is an ode to the Wild West and the town of Tombstone. Watch staged gunfights, cowboy reenactments, and line dance to your heart’s content.

OK Corral

Arizona Travel FAQs

Is Arizona expensive to vacation?

Arizona can be expensive to vacation if you plan winter travel to a spa destination like Scottsdale. It can also be very budget-friendly if you plan off-season travel to the state’s national parks or a city break in Phoenix. 

What time of year is the cheapest to visit Arizona?

January is generally the cheapest time of year to visit Arizona, but it does depend on where you’re going in the state if you’re looking for budget-friendly travel. Summer in the state’s big cities can offer big savings if you don’t mind dealing with the heat.

Is the Grand Canyon closer to Phoenix or Sedona?

The Grand Canyon is closer to Sedona than Pheonix. The driving distance from Sedona to the Grand Canyon is approximately 117 miles. The distance from Phoenix is around 230 miles. Both offer a scenic route to the national park, so it may depend on where you fly in.

Embark on an Arizona journey filled with natural wonders, vibrant culture, and unforgettable adventures—your ultimate desert escape awaits!

Keep reading: It turns out it is possible to visit 50 States in 50 days